Panmag 55

ISSN 0738-4777 

Friday, June 13, 2008
PO Box 1500 NY NY 10009 USA   

2nd Printing

Big Brown: Will The Last Mail Artist Please Flush The Toilet And Turn Off The Light?

By Mark Bloch

Because there are as many ways to read and write about “mail art” as there are people who have been exposed to it, the story of mail art is an ongoing Rashomon-like tale that has been morphing and transforming itself in plain sight of the very “Art World” it has claimed for decades to be an alternative to, always darting nervously around the truth but never quite arriving there. Now that yet another embarrassing Michael Jackson-like makeover threatens (again) to twist the decaying, unfunctioning pulpy nose known as “mail art” into mass-acceptance as a viable art strategy, perhaps it is time to decry that the bloody, abused and delightfully overripe corpse of the activity is no longer fit for legitimate “discovery” as a mode of artistic expression. It is, of course, still available for acts of artistic necrophilia now that mail as a medium has been picked over sufficiently by NON-“mail artists” in the form of too many shows in Chelsea over the past ten years to recall (see David Krueger’s recent exhibition of George W. Bush postage stamps), books (from Henrik Drescher’s sublime Postal Seance to a hobby-oriented monstrosity called Creative Correspondence by Judy Jacobs)  to web sites (one called Post Secret by Frank Warren has yielded four hardcover books published by Harper Collins, becoming this decade’s answer to the why-didn’t-I-think-of-that “Griffin and Sabine” series). So rather than turning the world’s most generous giveaway gig into cold hard cash like everyone else, maybe another panel discussion is in order to publicly flay the dead, convulsive once-svelte body of the dead mail art horse, as lame and disappointing as a Big Brown jackpot at the end of a once-promising rainbow.

Should a proper panel made up of Jean Arp and AARP-influenced experts be convened to discuss a “society where modes of communication are undergoing rapid upheavals”? And why shouldn’t that panel be led to Victory Over the Obvious by a well-meaning and misinformed moderator known to travel the world in search of other people’s ideas to steal and regurgitate while espousing the ideals of artistic “recycling?”

“Postal Art,” “Mail Art,” “Correspondence Art,” “The Network” and the “Eternal Network” are each names for the same undefinable thing. The names refer to an international network of artists, non-artists and anti-artists that continue to this day to exchange work through the international postal system. Postal Art or “Post Art” as I prefer to call it, has been going on since the first postal system was created by Hammurabi, but the present “Eternal Network” has it’s roots in the Italian Futurists who used the medium of the mail to stoke the flames of war and Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondence School, a loose-knit group of correspondents that was fully formed by 1955 but “blossomed” in the early sixties when the NYCS merged with artists in the international Fluxus movement whose “members” in the U.S., France, Japan, West Germany and elsewhere used the post by necessity to correspond about their activities and stoke the flames of low-cost anti-art For The People.

Meanwhile, independent networks of artists in Central and South America and Eastern Europe, driven even more by necessity and survival than a desire for a cute way to fetishize postmarks, stamps and other things postal, developed along similar lines. In the late 60’s and 70’s, these various networks connected with each other through word of mouth, converging to create what the late Fluxus artist Robert Filliou coined the “Eternal Network.” He meant something else, but in some misguided quarters the name stuck and remains a viable term to introduce false complexity to a simple topic. Self-organized artist groups in Canada actually managed to figure out a way to parlay this activity into free government money and one of them, The Image Bank, later solicited and then published lists of artists and the type of imagery each was interested in receiving. Today “The Network” continues to exist, connecting artists in some 50-plus countries but now indistinguishable from communications-based creativity on the Internet. It is estimated that by the time of Ray Johnson’s suicide from natural causes in 1995, some 50,000 artists had participated but the actual number can never be known due to Postal Art’s elusive qualities that are a result of its “openness.”

There are no formal parameters to the Network. To its credit, it has always been open to everyone who wants to participate. To its occasional detriment, that participant need not be an artist or make art. The Network is a living embodiment of the ideal that all of life is art and that everyone is an artist. Anyone who wants to has the artistic license to send anything they want, to anyone they want, without fear of judgment or exclusion or so the story goes. But both judgment and exclusion are present in abundance. Nevertheless, this principle has bound the Network together, largely uncorrupted and barely detected, for over fifty years in spite of the world that surrounds it; a world overflowing with greed and elitism that seeks to pigeonhole, classify, criticize
and reduce everyone and everything to an item for sale. The Network, claiming not to be for sale and touting itself as a living model for an alternative system with a goal of international cooperation, is better than nothing but it has always walked a precarious ethical line with regard to money and ego, with hypocrisy and/or ignorance on one side and ambivalence on the other.

This idealistic system that mail art claims to be did actually exist and work for a short time. I entered the activity in 1977 but eventually learned that it was long over. Articles in Rolling Stone and Art in America in the early 1970s rendered the once-promising movement feckless.

Unbeknownst to me and others that came on board in the later 70s, mail art had already peaked, flowered and died. After enduring the controversies over the proliferation of “quick copy” mail art that preceded me, then after the rise of the mail art show and the oft-written “unwritten” rules of mail art, after Tourism and the battle of its inventors that followed, after the Decentralized Mail Art Congresses (til-you-puke) movement, after enduring all of it, mail art, in retrospect, was still a breach baby, dead before it arrived, strangled by its own umbilical cord in the early 1970s. Not only did Rolling Stone and Art in America help, but so did a number of other factors. Good, old fashioned sexism helped kill mail art, too. It took on the name “mail” as if to subconsciously say “male,” choosing that over “post” art which is a thousand times more promising as a pun and much less Anglo-centric. But no, not Anglo—in England they, too, use the verb “to post.” “Mail art” has always been fatally USA-centric. What could be more uninteresting or indicative of its fate: white male college students mailing chair legs and collages cobbled together from the nudes in Playboy to each other while whispering about subversion? No, correspondence as innovation died when Ray Johnson diedthe first time—in 1973, when he told The New York Times obituary page that his School was a dead bird on the shore. This activity was not meant to be a predictable, cheery extension of Pop Art like Robert Indiana’s LOVE symbol or a petty, stultifying art faction with unwritten rules to argue about, a bunch of no-talent cops, copycats and criminals hassling each other over who sent out a mailing list and who didn’t as proof of its democratic principles.

While this democratic process which lived on long after the “golden years” of mail art is often blamed for a superficial, if accurate, perception than an uneven level of “quality” exists in the mail art “community” as a whole, members of the post-peak Network system often posit correctly that quality need only exist in the eyes of the sender and the receiver. The network, whether cutting edge or not, is a living process, not a product or a commodity–which makes judgments and definitions of limited use to participants who have proliferated in spite of the many proclamations of its demise. The only way to really understand mail art, for better or worse, has always been to participate. Thus, any history or critique of the Network, including this one, can only be a lie or at best a partial snapshot, due to the activity’s complexity and ever-changing nature. Just as it is difficult to grasp the description of a person one does not know, or understand a piece of music without hearing it, Mail Art, Correspondence Art, Postal Art and/or the Eternal Network must be experienced to be understood.

I’m sure you have embellished envelopes or postcards or letters or maybe even sent out or received strange things by mail. With whom does one do this activity when one is a mail artist? If you are a postal artist, you get it from postal artists and you send it to postal artists. But a postal artist can be anyone and postal art can be anything.  So it is the spirit of mail art that determines the nature of the activity and the spirit of mail art at its best is to give and not to worry about what will be received.

If a person wants to be involved, they usually send something to one of the shows or individuals. They will start to get on lists, make contacts and before they know it, feel like “every day is Christmas” and “the mailbox is a museum.” 

So who continues to engage in this activity, long after the first generation of hep white boys of the USA graduated from college? More of the same, but less hep, less white and perhaps with a lower percentage of males. To their credit, mail art “networkers” have always been difficult to categorize. Even though I have met hundreds of them and see a similarity in each one of them, I cannot tell you what that similarity is. A certain openness is the closest I can come. The thing to remember about Postal Art is that no two networkers have the same experience. Some prefer entering shows and projects, others like personal correspondence, some heard about it through word of mouth, others through exhibitions, others through books or articles. All of these factors and more influence the parameters of the communicator and the communication.

There are no prerequisites for someone to be a participant. Many have tried to pin down what a mail artist is but that sort of categorization or membership requirements are ultimately against the grain of what mail art is about. With strict requirements for entry into the network, it stagnates and self-destructs. Its openness is what keeps the network changing from day to day, keeping it a process and avoiding commodity status. Mail artists in and outside of cities participate. The Networking community is like a traditional community in intellectual and spiritual proximity but not physical proximity. The latitude is large intellectually, spiritually, and geographically. East, West; North, South; Young, Old; English-speaking, non-English-speaking; men and women.

But why would someone want to do this at a time when the Internet is virtually free and sub-networks come and go as needed? Is it the tactile quality of the communications?  And if it ceased to innovate, what does the network now “do”? I see as many “uses” for mail art as there are participants. What a person does after they learn about mail art is up to them. Those that stay have the potential to shape it. For me the value of the network is being able to contact any of the participants and find out what they are thinking and doing and to tell them what I am up to. Subgroups such as poets, writers, rubber stampers, collagists, newsletter publishers, artistamp makers, computer artists, xerox artists, visual poets, letter writers, painters, musicians, sound artists, performance artists, etc. overlap. This is of great value to me. But the numbers are bigger and the communication easier on the Internet. That’s why I switched from mail art to online communications in 1989.

Because each piece of mail art, not unlike every email, is a success or a failure according to the intentions of the artist that sent it and the perceptions of the artist that receives it or sees it, mail art as a whole is constantly being re-defined and each piece can be redefined as it travels through the network. But once again what is it that separates mail from email besides the sense of touch? Or are they the same?

Certainly mail art predated the Internet and many of the fundamental qualities have gravitated to Internet use, most importantly the do-it-yourself sensibility including pseudonyms and some of the qualities of anonymous exchange. I have discussed this in my essay Communities Collaged: Mail Art and The Internet in New Observations Magazine in 2000.

Is mail art a medium? It is a meta-medium. The postal system itself is a distribution vehicle that carries work created in other media- painting, collage, photocopy, poetry, printing, sound, magazines, etc. So the Network is the medium plus each and every mail artist, connections between mail artists, and the work being sent by those artists to one another.

Some stylistic similarities that still characterize the network today were in place by the early seventies when the term “mail art” became prevalent. Those characteristics include (but are not limited to) the use of the international postal system, the use of humor, experimentation, discourse, and the use of photocopies and rubberstamps in addition to hand made collages, paintings and drawings. “Artistamps” is the name given to fake postage stamps that many postal artists create to mimic the official postal service. These are generally not created to substitute for real stamps, they are merely a creative device that is a natural progression, given to the medium (post) that mail art travels in. Many participants use irreverent images on artistamps and rubber stamps to parody official institutions. Pseudonyms are prevalent. Many mail artists use more than one name for their activities. The entire network is seen by some as an amusing parallel to real bureaucracy. The postal system is probably the main influence on the  “look” of mail art. Other influences are (but not limited to) Dada, Surrealism and the punk movement.

As I mentioned briefly, in the early 1980’s postal artists encouraged meeting each other in a sub-movement called Tourism, where the idea was to meet other networkers face to face. Tourism culminated in 1986—the year of the International Decentralized Mail Art Congress where meetings of two or more mail artists was considered a Congress and larger groups tackled issues in roundtable discussions. This was a good idea. Until it was repeated in 1989. And again in 1992. Make it stop!

Still, their intentions were good and the tradition of this type of anti-art subculture, effectual or not, is long and continues today on the Internet.
So yes, it goes back past the Punks, the Hippies, the Beats and the Theatre of the Absurd to the Surrealists and Dadas to Italian Futurists to Alfred Jarry and his creation Ubu Roi. But even before that there was Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine, the Pre-Raphaelites and other dandies of the 19th Century. John Cage’s ideas bridge the gap from Thoreau to Marcel Duchamp to Fluxus. If “mail art” as a movement can make today’s young people realize that there is a tradition that predates MTV, then I suppose this is an admirable activity and I should not be so hard on it. I used to write for the magazine Factsheet Five and in that context, the infamous anarchist Bob Black once pointed out that mail art was the Special Olympics of the Art World. One wonders if such comments are constructive or merely hilarious.

The connection between mail art and Fluxus is direct. They were involved in correspondence art some 40 years ago. The mid-sixties was prime time. Fluxman Robert Filliou coined the phrase Eternal Network, which has stuck. Robert Watts and George Maciunas made artists postage stamps, among the first ever. Ken Friedman and Joseph Beuys invented rubber stamps to be used in correspondence. Beuys did a lot of mail art. He made many postcard editions, including one of wood. George Brecht and Watts used mail art in the YAM Festival. Ben Vautier created the Postman’s Choice postcard with one address on each side.

The most important mail art-Fluxus link is the previously mentioned Ray Johnson (1927- 1995). He is known as the grand-dada of mail art because he started the New York CorresponDANCE School back in the 60’s. He is often linked to the Fluxus artists but he was not a joiner although he did participate in their earliest eponymous publication. Dick Higgins, the coiner of the term “intermedia,” a Fluxite and friend of Ray’s, who published the astounding and important Something Else Press back then, did a book of Ray’s letters called The Paper Snake. Ray was one of the first to do Pop portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis—even before his friend Andy Warhol. He was certainly one of the first Pop artists. Because of his use of the mails, Nam June Paik, the Fluxus inventor of video art called Johnson The First Communications Artist. Paik, a Fluxus artist himself, bought a Sony Portapak camera in the early 1960s and paved the way for everyone to be their own broadcasting station.

In fact, the self-publishing movement started with the invention of the printing press which made greater distribution of written texts possible. William Blake, Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin and the early Quakers were precursors to mail art. Self publishing, underground newspapers, underground comics, punk, zines, etc. are all occasionally referred to as “alternative.” What makes it so? In the 1940s, John Cage stuck objects between the strings of a piano and created a “new instrument” he called the prepared piano. He also claimed 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence as a serious musical composition. That sounds alternative to me. As mail art peaked in the early to mid 70s, Brian Eno encouraged people to try recording techniques and play instruments they hadn’t played before. Garage bands have always been the most common example of the Do It Yourself or DIY movement. But after the 80s, there was no limit to the ways artists of all kind have taken their destiny into their own hands. The zine and cassette tape exchange movements made everyone their own distributor. They used the mail and overlapped with mail art. Genesis P-Orridge of the band Throbbing Gristle was a mail artist. He lists some 40 mail art shows that took place between 1972 and 1978 on his resume.  Whether pop culture influenced mail art art or mail art influenced pop culture, I have no idea. But mail art was an idea whose time had come. But the fact that people still do it and have panel discussions about it reminds me a bit of those Civil War re-enactments.

While a do-it yourself concept like mail art is NOT an art form of superstars or one that embraces the idea of the cult of personality, I admire the people on tonight’s panel at the Center for Book Arts. Martha Wilson did a wonderful thing when she started the Franklin Furnace. The fact that she hosted a mail art show that exploded in the form of two previous panel discussions, on February 17 and 24 of 1984, points to some of the complexity surrounding the exhibition of mail art long after it had peaked as an activity. John Evans was as active back then as he was in the early days of the New York Correspondence School twenty years prior and as he is today. He is one of the only artists I know who still does not have an email address and I admire him for that. Thank goodness he lives in my neighborhood so we can still communicate now that I do so little mail art. It is good for New York that AA Bronson has moved here and is running Printed Matter. Contrary to popular belief, mail art IS for sale and you can buy it at Printed Matter. Buy some of mine, will ya? Bronson’s contribution to mail art with File Magazine is legendary but he didn’t stop there. He kept on publishing until the entire art world took notice. That’s my kind of mail artist. One that graduates from the art ghetto and moves on to even better stuff.  Speaking of even better stuff, Barbara Moore has been involved in some of the great art happenings of our time. She and her late husband Peter Moore went from Fluxus to Fluxus and back again. She has amassed important texts, books, art objects and photos that make an invaluable documentation of the second half of the twentieth century. When she speaks I hang on every word. Finally, William Wilson did a great thing when he started Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935. He then became a good friend of Ray Johnson and has recently taken an interest in mail art. We wish him well in all his endeavors.

You see, I mean no harm. I am merely a smart ass exercising my right to make trouble where there is none. While there is no scarcity of mail art breakthroughs that one could write about, this pamphlet will not be one of them. But if history has taught us anything, it is that someone, some day will host a panel discussion on it, just the same. Many thanks to Champe Smith and the Center for Book Arts for including me in their show, and to John Held Jr. for moderating the panel.


Ray Johnson's house

For Ray

Mail art and other short lived organisms

I think mail art is like the masked shrew. The masked shrew (Sorex cinereus) is the most widely distributed shrew in North America,  3 to 4 inches long including a tail under 2 inches. They weigh less than a dime.

Masked shrews, living under rocks, spend most of their lives in underground runways they construct, or in the tunnels of mice or other small mammals. They are good swimmers but rarely enter the water. Their ability to see and smell are poor, but their sense of touch is well-developed.

Masked shrews eat insects, worms, slugs, snails, mollusks and carrion.

Masked shrews are active day and night, but especially at dusk. An individual’s heart beats 1,200 times per minute, evidencing its rapid metabolism. As a result they don’t live long.

Owls, hawks, herons, shrikes, weasels, foxes, cats and larger shrews kill the masked shrews, few of which reach their maximum lifespan of about 18 months.

Panmag 55 ISSN 0738-4777 PO Box 1500 NY NY 10009 USA